Writer's Notes

Conferences: Writers Conference Confidential! Gil Mansergh


by Gil Mansergh

G Mansergh Pettingill coverBefore you sign up for a writer’s conference, there are a few “trade secrets” that conference organizers don’t want you to know. I directed the prestigious California Writers Club Writers Conference at Asilomar for five years, and have been on the faculty of conferences in San Francisco, LA, Fresno, Marin, Stanford University and Santa Rosa, but I never signed a non-disclosure agreement—so here is the nitty gritty.

First off, a writer’s conference can change your life. I went to my first conference as a “Program Consultant” for nonprofit agencies, and left that same weekend as a “Writer.” This resulted in over three decades working as a syndicated newspaper columnist, a writer for hire (over 70 books and counting), a novelist, and the host/producer of the NPR radio show, Word By Word: Conversations With Writers.

But (and this is a very important but), I am the exception. 95% of conference attendees never become professional writers. They may, after dozens of rejections, self-publish their own book(s) or have some pieces appear in literary journals, but earning mega-bucks from having a best-seller remains as elusive as having Publishers Clearinghouse arrive at your door with a big check.

Writers conferences are, first and foremost, business ventures based on selling wannabe writers a dream. I was (and still am) part of this marketing scheme. I made sure that every conference I directed included the all-important, money-maker, Agents and Editors—numerous opportunities (including manuscript critiques, Q&A panels, and pitch sessions) for attendees to interact with professionals who (ostensibly) hold the keys to success. I also included “name brand” keynoters (Pulitzer Prize winners, NY Times Bestsellers, Disney Writer/Directors, etc.) for advertising and publicity purposes and offered practical, hands-on workshops in diverse genres (presented by teachers I had personally seen in action). As an added bonus, we had entertainment: comedians, singers, dancers, musicians, and a California Park Ranger portraying Jack London. And free wine—great Sonoma County wines were served from vineyards eager to have their product appreciated by “influential” writers. The trick is to have the pouring staff keep full bottles behind the table, and place only empty bottles on display.

Despite all this careful planning, it turned out the most important part of the weekend was something I did not control. Since the conference grounds at Asilomar State Park in Pacific Grove include meals with the cost of the rooms, everyone (attendees and faculty alike) ate breakfast, lunch and dinner together around large circular tables. Voila! Instant opportunities to interact with other writers.

I shared this phenomenon in a piece for Writers Digest Magazine I called “The Nudist and Lana Turner’s Shoes.” Named after information two other conference attendees shared about themselves, I wrote the following:
“The secret for getting the most out of a writer’s conference is simple. You don’t have to study and annotate the conference schedule or take notes at the workshops and think up insightful questions for the panelists. All you have to do is go to meals and ask the people on either side of you ‘What do you write?’ You’ll quickly learn that writers are interesting people with fascinating stories to tell. What’s more, they will freely share their successes and failures with fellow writers.”

I went on to describe some of the writers I talked with: the kayaking wine expert who reviews computer hardware for MacWorld, the travel writer recently returned from Western Australia, the woman in the lunch line who commented how it reminded her of waiting for a crust of bread in a Ugandan prison camp, the nurse who crusades against female circumcision, the mystery novelist who tries out her new characters in short stories, and, of course, the naturist fireman writing about his photo safari to Africa, and the woman searching for someone to write about her make-up artist husband’s collection of movie stars’ shoes and clothing.

What I wrote all those years ago still holds today: “When you go to a writer’s conference, you can learn at least as much from your fellow writers as you will from the formal program.”


Gil Mansergh

Author Bio:
Gilbert Mansergh is the psychological educator internationally acclaimed for utilizing Hollywood movie clips as teaching tools. Author of over sixty non-fiction books, two syndicated film columns, and movie blog, Gil is also the producer/host of the Word By Word: Conversations With Writers radio show on Sonoma County’s NPR station, KRCB-FM. Gil’s first novel, The Marvelous Journals of Miss Virginia Pettingill is fictionalized from true stories told by his mother about her childhood in Gloucester, Massachusetts after WW1, and has received glowing reviews from critics and readers.

Amazon Buy link: The Marvelous Journals of Miss Virginia Pettingill


Writer's Notes

Writer’s Notes: Conferences

By Thonie Hevron


Conference pic
Thonie at the 2014 Redwood Writers Pen to Published Conference

December is an exciting month. The anticipation builds all month of Christmas, Hanukah or whatever holiday you celebrate. Gift-giving, family traditions, religious celebration are all part of it. But there’s another side of December that most people don’t think about: writers planning career strategies. December/January is a time when most people set new resolutions to change their lives. Be it losing weight, asking for a promotion, or planning a new book, these days authors need to think about their futures.

What’s in your personal inventory that needs improvement? Do you have a craft issue? Afraid of marketing? Are you searching for an agent, editor, or publisher?

Finding the right writing conference could help you find solutions to your problems. Almost everything I know, I learned from other writers, especially at conferences. Where better to get help than from other writers?

If you’ve ever researched a conference, you know there are many kinds. Laurel S. Peterson (her post appears on 12/15) talks about the different types. Her perspective is as an introvert—aren’t all writers mostly introverted? You’ll definitely find something to help. On 12/5, Christina Hoag give an overview of the most popular events—coast to coast. When I read her post, I changed my plans. You might, too.


Redwood Writers Conference for 2018 will be on April 21st. Click on the link below for further information.

Donna Schachter (12/22) and Michelle Drier (12/29) will have something to offer as well. In January, Gil Mansergh, former Director of the California Writers Club Conference at Asilomar for seven years, has written an honest perspective of the realities of what conferences advertise, what they really provide, and what writers at different skill levels can learn by attending. Nancy J. Cohen will chime in as well in January with fabulous advice on how to choose the right conference as well as some resources.


Where to find conferences? Word of mouth, your writer’s community (club, critique group, etc.), online: Google ‘Writers Conferences’ but your best bet is peer recommendations. Even if you’re a new author, identify those in your literary community and let them guide you. They have a better sense of your writing needs than the internet does.

How do conferences work? A lot of conferences have “tracks” which are topics you can choose and follow through the event. For instance, popular tracks are “genre,” “craft,” “platform & promotion,” “the business of writing,” and “getting published.” It’s not mandatory to stay within a track for the duration, though you want to be sure about this before sending in your money. Some events are strict while others use it as a guideline.

They’re expensive, aren’t they? There are ways around spending a fortune at conferences, but I haven’t found them yet. Okay, you can stay at a less pricey hotel (or if you have friends or relatives in the area) but that detracts from the experience. There’s a comradery between attendees who sweat through the same pitch sessions or learn earth-shattering lessons from the same presenters. Plus, you never know with whom you’ll share the elevator. Ever heard of the elevator pitch? You won’t get the opportunity if you’re staying with Aunt Sally.

You must weigh the expenditure against the experience you hope to gain.

My first big event was the San Francisco Writers Conference. It was the big time—I pitched to Donald Maass and several other top tier agents. I prepared myself ahead of time by practicing my pitch. After attending my small Redwood Writers Conferences, I knew what would to expect. Attending an event with prominent professionals of the literary world was daunting but with preparation, there were few surprises. Okay, at the “Speed-pitching” event, the agent who specialized in film rights listened politely to my twenty-second pitch, thought for a moment, then said, “Hm, woman in jeopardy. It’s been done. Next!” His rudeness went into my arsenal for developing a thicker skin. I still have many professional relationships that began in San Francisco in 2011.

PSWA header4My favorite conference is smaller and more reasonable. The Public Safety Writers Association holds a 4-day event every year in Las Vegas. It’s where I met my first publisher. It’s intimate yet not cliquish. Welcoming and–well, you’ll hear more from Conference Director Mike Black in January.

I could go on and on about conferences but next Friday (in December and January) will begin presentations from seven other authors with their perspectives.

One last thing—do it. You may not get an agent or publisher, but what you learn should increase your craft and experience.

That’s vital in today’s publishing scene.


Writer's Notes

KCRB Interview with photos

By Thonie Hevron

Well, technology defeated me yet again yesterday.

Back in April, Sandy Baker, Lex Fajardo and I did with KCRB’s Gil Mansergh to publicize the Redwood Writers From Pen to Published Conference (to be held on April 26th). The interview went well–I actually had fun. but it took me all this time to have a moment to find it. I did that yesterday and thought I set the post to appear on Wednesday with the thought that I’d add photos and some explanation today. Obviousy, I made a boo-boo because it appeared yesterday morning. So for today, I’m posting some of the photos we took.

Our host Gil Mansergh at KCRB. He made us feel at ease; a terrific interviewer!
Our host Gil Mansergh at KCRB. He made us feel at ease; a terrific interviewer!

Gil Mansergh is the host of KCRB’s Word by Word, a show reflecting the literary talents in the North Bay. Sandy Baker, my co-chair, is the author of the thriller Tehran Triangle as well as a host of darling children’s stories. Lex Fajardo is the creator of the graphic novel Kid Beowulf series and will appear at the conference in a session about book trailers, YouTube and other media for book marketing.

Sandy Baker putting on those pretty headphones
Sandy Baker putting on those pretty headphones

I was the third interviewee.

Me, Lex and Gil at KCRB
Me, Lex and Gil at KCRB

KCRB Interview

Writer's Notes

Guest Blogger Amanda McTigue — The Power of Place

The Power of Place
The Power of Place

Writing is setting. Indeed, to write is to place (that’s “place” as a verb).

We writers place readers in worlds. We set them into circumstances, stories, imagery, facts, memories, actions, fantasies, and so on.

Setting in this sense isn’t mere background. It’s the sum total of every last word we write. And yet, so often we think of place as scenery. What a mistake!

Place shapes voice. I’m not talking dialect here. I’m saying the ways we writers situate ourselves in imagined (or remembered) worlds give rise to the ways we convey those worlds to others.

Our first task, then, is to place ourselves so fully that our readers go with us.

“All well and good,” you say, “but how can we interrupt our action-packed, conflict=drama, page-turning flow to squeeze in some detail of setting? We’re writing to keep readers reading! There’s no room! There’s no time!”

I feel your pain. We writers are in such a rush. Determined to finish-and-publish, we worry about where to put the “where” in our text before we even know where “where” is.

But place gathers power when we slow down.

In my writing process, “where” has a time and pace (that’s not a typo). I do everything I can to remind myself that plot points can wait; endings will find themselves. Meanwhile, when I’m lost, I get more lost. I schedule time for sheer exploration. We’re talking undirected (but focused!) wandering accomplished through short sessions of stream-of-consciousness writing.

So often, our best work is discovered, not planned. When’s the last time you ambled through your worlds with no agenda? How about sitting still? How about nosing around for nothing in particular? Try leaving your map at home. Paddle. Search. Listen. Taste. Sniff. Find a new vantage point. Marvel. Take a nap. Unpack a picnic, etc.

Forget writing. Just notice and take notes. The bird watcher doesn’t agonize about her style when she’s out in the field. She scribbles as fast as she can. Who cares if there’s a better word for “red?” She keeps her eye not on the page, but on that tiny splash of color hidden in the branches. She tries to capture everything, knowing the bird will fly off any minute, taking the moment with it.

Lately, I find such field trips invaluable. I schedule them not only as I’m drafting but also right through my editing process.

Let’s say I’m polishing a chapter for the umpteenth time and it’s still god-awful. Sometimes I know what’s missing. Sometimes I have no idea why it stinks. Either way, I set the manuscript aside, put on my boots and step out into a wet garden or a fetid alley or a crater on the Planet Zarn with absolutely no sense of how that’s going to help. I just give myself a half-hour and go.

I take field equipment along to sharpen my observations: binoculars, a camera dolly, a satellite, a cloud boat, a microphone, a microscope, my tongue. I grab every writer’s prompt I’ve ever enjoyed and bring them too—questions or novel points-of-view—to keep myself playful and curious.

I place myself—and things happen. Setting always brings more than static landscape. Worlds always world, even the quietest of them.

When I return to editing, I bring the fruits of my wandering. Suddenly an overlooked shoelace suggests a murder weapon, a tree branch holds a charm, or the stitching on a pillow brings a character to life.

Does that mean that I use every word I write in such sessions? Not even close. But nothing is wasted. What I don’t use leads me to what I do use: richer passages—even new storylines—far fresher than anything my editor’s brain could cook up.

There’s nothing like a road-trip. Whether staring at a blank page, or yet another re-write, schedule time to explore. Place yourself first (pun very much intended). Shake off your worries about the where of where; you can figure that out when the where is there.


Slow down.

Forget writing.

Take notes.

Amanda McTigue
Amanda McTigue

Amanda McTigue’s debut novel, Going to Solace, was selected as one of four “Best Reads of 2012” by Gil Mansergh on KRCB’s “Word by Word.” Her new collection of short stories, Convergence, is due out in 2015 with a second novel, Monkey Bottom, on its heels. Amanda will moderate a rocking panel (“Excuse Me, But I Love My Damn Neck”) with Linda Loveland Reid and Kate Farrell at the Gather the Women Conference on March 8th in Santa Rosa. On March 30, she’ll be in Auburn, CA to lead a master class in presentation skills for writers at the Save the Dewitt Theater Writers’ Workshop. Then, apropos of this blog post, Amanda’s pen-to-paper workshop on “The Power of Place” will be featured as part of the Redwood Writers Conference on April 26.

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